Robotic Mnemonic

Being a librarian is a complex business, and pretty much every discipline of study out there exists because of a historical respect for the values which guide our profession. Or, at least, because of the impulse which guides some of us toward the study and practice of librarianship. Without an overarching belief in the equitable value of all information, and without a heartfelt need to preserve cultural memory, where would we be?

As Andrew Robinson discusses in The Story of Writing, language has been used to obscure history and propagandize right from the start. After a battle at Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites in approximately 1286BC, each side proclaimed themselves the victor in graven inscriptions. In the 20th century, Stalin routinely demanded falsified photographs to disguise the absence of the disappeared, and more recently Time magazine got in trouble for editing a little cover photo. Or two.

Fauxtography and its antecedents are a fascinating study, and one that helps properly contextualize library values and practice. I am obviously a fan of advocacy; I do not believe in pure objectivity, and in fact I feel that perpetuating a myth of objectivity only harms professions that are held to it, such as journalism and librarianship. (Edward R. Murrow, we have not forgotten you.) Language itself carries millions of unspoken processes for discrimination without which we could not function or meaningfully communicate, yet simultaneously erects borders that proscribe meaning & communication.

Lukasa (Memory Board) of the Luba people

“Is there a difference between history and memory? Simplistically, perhaps, one tends to think of memory as personal, selective, amorphous and emotionally charged; and of history as memory made to some degree objective, sorted out, verified, supplied with missing events, dates and causes.” Isn’t it incontrovertible at this late date though that memory creates history, and vice versa?

I love trying to understand cultural conceptions of memory, and how we organize the stories we tell ourselves. If you’ve even been involved in a car accident or argued passionately with a loved one you know how forceful dissonant memories can be. Communities coalesce around shared coruscating facets of memory; our own personal Rashomon Effect. Memory is central to librarianship, and it is so important to preserve memories of our selves and our world unedited. Every time history is re-imagined, or reshaped by contemporary understanding, we lose something in the translation unless the original memory is preserved.

A librarian is a steward, yes, but also a bulwark as well. After the Roman Empire’s influence dissolved by assimilation selfless Abbots and monks preserved dangerous philosophical texts at risk of losing their lives — hiding them in walls and chests, scraping front pages of heretic authors’ names and copying onto the palimpsest names of condoned writers, or even rebinding works so that several texts could be hidden by the authority of an acceptable one. Almost every early religious culture was involved in this form of preservation, be it Islamic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist or Christian. Without such work the records of cultural memory would be illegible maelstroms of dust.

Huichol yarn painting by Rojelio Beuites

Digitization offers so much promise…I can’t wait to see how the Armarius project is going to develop. Just as amazing is the British Library’s Turning the Pages project, which offers to the world community a chance to interact with very rare and fragile primary texts otherwise impossible to share. Familiarity with digital platforms, social networking and what have you, is at root a form of multilingualism which can only complement our respective native languages. As a librarian I feel responsible to history because, at the end of the day, librarianship is a socially sanctioned mnemonic.


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